Pirates end winter meetings with some moves, some questions

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The unofficial close of the winter meetings arrived for the Pirates this morning when general manager Neal Huntington emerged from his suite at the Disney Dolphin and Swan Hotel, cruised the lobby with a gaggle of major league GM’s then headed north by midday.  

The Pirates did not exactly wield a bevy of blockbuster deals during the meetings but made a splash by avoiding two years of free agency with a 3-year, $21 million contract extension for ground ball ace Charlie Morton on Wednesday.

The club then signed starter Edinson Volquez to a one-year, $5 million contract, signed free-agent shortstop Clint Barmes to a one-year $2 million deal Thursday as a defensive backup for Jordy Mercer, and picked up three minor league pitchers in the Rule 5 draft.

Questions remain though – including some big ones.

The franchise leaves without a solution at first base in what has become a rapidly shrinking market, no clarity on whether or not free agent A.J. Burnett will return or retire, and possibly the need for another arm, relief or otherwise.  

The Volquez deal was most notable for what it may indicate about the team’s future with Burnett who has pushed his decision to retire or not deep into the winter, perhaps beyond where many clubs might be comfortable.

But if the Pirates are preparing for life without Burnett, they haven’t said so yet.

“We feel good, we continue to work behind the scenes, and again, whether it’s A.J. or another move, we feel good about where we’re headed,” Huntington said on Wednesday. “We’re basically going through the ebb and flow of the meetings and trying not to get caught in the emotional wave that can sometimes happen and just continue to make sure we work to make logical, rational decisions for the betterment of the organization.”

Huntington considered the deal with Morton a coup, one that represented a reasonable common ground financially, and secured a pitcher he considers a big part of the team’s future.  

Morton, 30, had a 3.26 ERA in 116 innings in 2013 after Tommy John surgery kept him out of the rotation until June.

“Charlie obviously gets financial stability for this and maybe future generations and it allows him to just go pitch and do his thing,” said Huntington. “We get a pitcher that we like and believe has better days coming.”

Morton will be part of a rotation that includes Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Locke and now Volquez.

With the cost of starting pitching on an upward trajectory, Manager Clint Hurdle seemed relieved to shore up Morton.

The dynamics of the industry as well continue to shift and change as we see again this winter,” said Hurdle. “So to have men that you know who you've put time in together where there are no unknowns and you don't have to recreate or tweak, I think familiarity also is a good thing for everybody involved in this.”

Huntington said he got calls and requests for several players over the course of the four-day event, and when specifically asked about the burgeoning interest in lefty relievers Justin Wilson and Tony Watson had this to say: “Power left-handed relief is a rare commodity in the game. We’re fortunate to have two of them. We’d like to continue to have two of them. But if something makes us stronger as an organization, it’s something that we’d entertain.”

The Pirates were linked to several first base candidates over the course of the week, but as the days passed several were snapped up.

It’s unclear if the club’s interest in Tampa Bay free agent James Loney could materialize into a deal that makes sense financially. Loney was reportedly seeking a three-year contract in the $30 million range.

Huntington said they are not averse to a three-year contract, but the deal – with anyone for that long – would have to be a pretty sizable upgrade.

The other options at first base appear to be trade candidates from Toronto, New York, and Texas.

But the National League Central rival Milwaukee Brewers were reportedly considering a trade for Ike Davis of the New York Mets, which would remove one more from the pool.

Adding a relief pitcher has become somewhat of a challenge as well, said Huntington because of the strength of the Pirates bullpen heading into 2014.

“We’ve had a number of guys tell us, we love your opportunity, we love everything that you guys do, but we have a better chance to make another big league team and we’re going to sign there,” said Huntington. “That’s been a little bit frustrating. It’s humbling and feels good on one hand but at the same time you don’t want to watch guys go somewhere else.” 

Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com or Twitter: @JennMenendez

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